What’s the Purpose of Topless Protests?

Note: This post is SFW; links may not be.

Last month in Tunisia, a young activist named Amina Tyler posted a topless photo of herself online, with the phrases “My body belongs to me, it doesn’t represent anyone’s honor” and “Fuck your morals” written across her torso. (Here’s the original photo.) When the Ukrainian feminist group Femen declared April 5 a day of international topless protests in solidarity, it caused a furor, and not just in Tunisia.

To me, the point of Amina’s protest (and the similar nude protest by Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in Egypt, who, like Tyler, is an atheist) was perfectly clear: it was a rejection of the idea that women’s bodies are dirty and shameful and must be covered up so they don’t tempt men into sin. That idea has been invoked in many different cultures and religions, not just Islamic ones, to oppress and to crush women’s lives: by decreeing that women should be kept at home like prisoners and denied the opportunity to get an education or a job in order to safeguard their “honor”, or that women who are raped or sexually assaulted must be at fault for enticing the men who assaulted them.

No one, I hope, is arguing that Muslim women or any other women have to undress to refute these prejudices. (I haven’t seen anyone from Femen saying this, but if they did, I would obviously oppose them.) The point of the protest is that it should always be an individual woman’s choice, not the decree of her society, tribe or family, what to do with her body, whether to show it or to cover it.

Granted, these threads are hard to disentangle when someone makes a choice that’s in line with the values of a society ruled by sexist mores. But there has to be a middle ground between “If a woman makes a choice that I don’t agree with, she’s self-hating and a bad feminist” and “Any choice that a woman makes is automatically feminist and can’t be challenged or criticized.”

The test I find most useful in teasing out the difference is this: whatever choice a person makes when it comes to their attire or their sexuality, can they freely make the opposite choice without being vilified, harassed, or put at risk of harm? If a woman chooses to wear a burqa in public, could she also have chosen to wear a bikini, or vice versa?

And on that test, most Islamic societies fail spectacularly. The explosion of violent hatred against Amina, including death threats and demands for her to be whipped or stoned, more than proves the point. Regardless of the values of individual Muslim women, most Muslim-majority countries are in the thrall of primitive, shame-based taboos that treat a woman’s modesty and virginity as the sole markers of her value. (This isn’t to say that all Western societies necessarily do better.)

That’s why this critique of the protests from Jezebel was so badly off-base, serving to defend and perpetuate sexism by wrapping it in misapplied social-justice language:

FEMEN needs to recognize that Muslim women do in fact have agency, and the idea that Muslim women are helpless, passively indoctrinated by the alleged evils of Islam, and desperately need of Western feminist help is oppressive and orientalist.

Wait just a minute. The idea that Muslim women should be able to choose for themselves how to dress – that‘s the “oppressive” idea? This is a complete inversion of reality. The “orientalist” argument would be saying that veiling is “just their culture” and that Muslim women are fine with being subservient and invisible, that human rights are a Western notion that don’t apply to other societies.

This criticism, like a similar one by Chitra Nagarajan on the Guardian, only makes sense if you assume that Muslim women as a group already have as much freedom as they need or want, that hijabs and niqabs spring entirely from individual choice, and that it’s condescending to protest on their behalf because they’re not in any way oppressed or discriminated against. As I said, this is an insultingly obvious falsehood, proven by Amina’s experience if nothing else.

We’ll know that there’s no more need for protests like this when we see societies where women aren’t viewed as repositories of male honor, where they can dress however they choose without shame or persecution. But we’re nowhere close to that day. Until then, one of the best ways to weaken an irrational taboo is to break it, flagrantly and intentionally, which is just what’s happening here. One person who breaks a taboo can often be silenced or forced into recanting through pressure and threats, but when thousands of people do it, enforcement becomes a futile effort.

Now, you could argue that Femen’s show of solidarity wasn’t all that useful, since most of them don’t live in societies where going topless is such a daring act. I grant there’s truth to that. But to argue that it’s wrong or racist or colonialist to protest at all, because no woman is oppressed by Islamic modesty teachings, is an apologetic for the worst kind of oppressive and violent religious sexism. Human rights really are universal; they really do apply to everyone; and the taboos of one culture or one religion aren’t binding on the rest of us. Whether it’s through topless protests, drawing pictures of Mohammed, or whatever method, we need to keep repeating that message until it starts to sink in.

POSTSCRIPT: After posting her initial photos, Amina was apparently beaten, drugged, subjected to forcible “virginity tests”, and held incommunicado by her own family. As of this posting, it seems that she’s escaped from them, although she isn’t yet safely out of Tunisia. Notably, one of the first groups she contacted was Femen.

Image credit: Shutterstock

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Imperious Dakar

    One of the scariest and ugliest things about religion is how it encourages people to turn on and betray their own families. In all 3 Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) loving God (and by extension his church) more than your family and friends is considered a virtue.

    Once you accept that premise what happened to Amina makes a twisted kind of sense.

    One more thing…

    I have said this before (although not at Patheos) and I will say it again:
    Given how much they loath their own women, its only a matter of time before the Muslim world begins aborting most of their girls in the womb the way that China and India are (assuming that they haven’t started the practice already).

  • http://yaburrow.googlepages.com yvonne

    Thanks for raising this issue, Adam — it’s important. I find it kind of irritating when people say it is always imperialist to criticise oppressive practices in other cultures — especially when people from those cultures have asked for help in ending those practices. However, it is important for western activists to work with activists within the other culture, and not just assume that “we know best”.

  • MNb

    “And on that test, most Islamic societies fail spectacularly.”
    The even sadder thing is that quite a few western, democratic, enlightened societies fail this test as well. A well known islamophobe Dutch politician proposed to tax head scarves only a few years ago. And – to stick with your own examples – Belgium, France and The Netherlands have prohibitive laws on waring burqa’s.
    I don’t mean this as a tu quoque. Islamic countries are misogine, period. But it is rather onesided to neglect this issue in the modern countries, don’t you think? Especially as quite a few fellow atheists think forbidding burqa’s and head scarves a good idea too. It’s always easier to demand tolerance from others than to display it ourselves.

  • Imperious Dakar

    MNb I know that there are still misogynistic people and policies in the West.
    But it is nothing compared to how badly women are treated in the Muslim World.

  • GCT

    @MNb,
    The idea behind banning burqas and headscarves comes from trying to stop women being forced to cover themselves. It’s a measure aimed at demanding tolerance of the intolerant. Pointing at that as an example of western intolerance is akin to the defense of the practice of forcing women to cover themselves that ‘it’s a cultural thing.’

  • L.Long

    I think NOT outlawing burqas and fulling respecting the islame religion is a great idea!
    Unemployment in certain regions would decrease a lot as all police activities would have be done in man-woman pairs as taken off the scarf or burqa cannot be done in the presence of an unknown man. Or the male cop could always have the woman allow him to suck her breast to make him a family member.
    If the burqa was a totally voluntary thing because it is such a great garment then why don’t the men wear them?
    And before some says it…Yes men do wear dresses. In fact I have 3 dresses and 2 skirts that I wear in the summer as the breeze they make helps cool vital areas. I cannot imagine wearing what islame women wear on a hot day as being comfortable and voluntary.

  • Renshia

    “What’s the Purpose of Topless Protests?”
    I don’t know, but we need more of them.

  • David Hart

    It seems to me that the mandating/banning of the burqa issues are not quite equivalent. One is malicious, one is mostly well-intended but misguided.

    The requirement that women wear veils/burqas in some muslim-majority countries is a misdiagnosis of the problem – i.e. the problem is thought to be that men will be driven wild with lust if they see a woman’s face, hair, arms etc (or at least, that’s the official story – when the mask slips, the real problem, though not often stated explicitly, is the question of how to keep female sexuality firmly under male control).

    The banning of the burqa in some Western countries is a misguided solution to a correctly-diagnosed problem – the problem being that women in muslim families (or perhaps I should say say muslim-majority families, since it is hard to say how many closeted religious skeptics are forced by social pressure into keeping up the pretense of devoutness) are made to live lives of second-class citizenship under pressure from their fathers, husbands etc*.

    The desire to have a society where no woman feels under pressure to veil up all the time is an honourable one, but outlawing the headgear really is a classic case of blaming the victim, since those who genuinely are wearing the veil because they want to, and wouldn’t face any adverse consequences if they chose not to, are by definition not doing anyone any harm, while those who wear the veil out of coercion are only going to get coercion not to go out in public at all if they can’t cover up when they do.

    *Again, that’s if we accept the official story. The cynicism of people of a Geert Wilders-ish persuasion suggests that, for a few, the real problem is how to criminalise being visibly Muslim while taking on the mantle of concern for human rights, and I suspect that the challenge for those of us who genuinely care about human rights to distance ourselves from those motivated by xenophobia will be a problem for some time to come

  • GemmaM

    At least some of the counter-protest, at least if the Jezebel article is any indication, arises from Muslim women not wanting to see their religion stereotyped. Muslimah Pride Day’s Facebook page is clearly not trying to force women to dress one way or another. On the contrary, it looks like one of the things it’s trying to do is counteract the stereotype that all Muslim women are forced to cover their heads by their evil menfolk.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    First, thanks for the links to Ophelia Benson and Maryam Namazie. I’ve been falling behind on reading some blogs and am glad to have the chance to read what they wrote.

    Granted, these threads are hard to disentangle when someone makes a choice that’s in line with the values of a society ruled by sexist mores. But there has to be a middle ground between “If a woman makes a choice that I don’t agree with, she’s self-hating and a bad feminist” and “Any choice that a woman makes is automatically feminist and can’t be challenged or criticized.”

    I very much agree with this sentiment.

    I think the issue here is that there’s a long (and infinitely ironic) history of equal rights movements for various groups that did great, beneficial things while nonetheless supporting or ignoring discrimination against other groups. This includes feminists who discriminate based on race, advocates of racial equality that discriminate based on gender, advocates of LGBTQIA equality who discriminate based on race and/or gender, workers’ rights people who discriminate based on race and/or gender, advocates for religious freedom who discriminate based on race and/or gender and/or sexual orientation (and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseum).

    There’s a very important realization now that this type of action is hypocritical and that it is important to care about equal rights for everyone. But there are are people who go about this in the wrong way; in the case of feminism, instead of caring about equal rights for everyone, they make an exception in equal rights for certain groups (often based on what the most socially conservative religious people in those groups say is their culture).

    It seems odd to me, because if someone who’s a socially conservative Christian tries to talk about “American values”, people who support equal rights are quick to point out that the most conservative Christians aren’t the only Americans, aren’t the only ones whose views count. Well, the most socially conservative Muslims aren’t the only ones whose views should count. (And it depends a lot on who exactly we’re talking about, because there are Muslims in many different countries and those countries also have non-Muslim residents/citizens. And, of course, not all Muslims agree with each other. Some may support such a protest while other don’t. Some may prefer other methods of protest over this one, while others may support multiple types.)

    If someone doesn’t particularly agree with FEMEN’s method of protest, that’s fine by me. I would suspect that, as with many protests, there were some supporters who truly cared about equal rights for women in other countries and others who were motivated partially by discrimination against people from other countries. Of course, I agree with the first group and disagree with the second.

    When it comes to the bigger picture, though, what really bothers me is that *every single time* there is a protest by Western women in support of equal rights for women in other countries, it gets called imperialist, as if there aren’t women from those other countries who support equal rights. Even in protests where there isn’t some clue that it was motivated by discrimination, even protests supported by people who are from the other countries being talked about, it’ll get called imperialist because someone had the nerve to point out how an interpretation of Islam contributed to the discrimination. I’m just tired of the most conservative religious groups getting to define the debate. This is about universal human rights, not “rights run through the filter of conservative Islamic interpretation”.

  • Azkyroth

    This includes feminists who discriminate based on race, advocates of racial equality that discriminate based on gender, advocates of LGBTQIA equality who discriminate based on race and/or gender, workers’ rights people who discriminate based on race and/or gender, advocates for religious freedom who discriminate based on race and/or gender and/or sexual orientation (and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseum).

    …all of the above who ooze giant rivers of allistic privilege…

  • L.Long

    Of course this whole naked problem or what you have to wear is not just an islamic problem but a religious and secular problem. Its AMAZING how people in general and men specifically ‘go bananas’ ( have to find the source of that expression) when a nude is seen or just a nipple when breast feeding. I’ve understood it-breast-virgina-penus-hair-head-arms- BFD!!!!
    Yes I can hear it now–WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Believe me from my personal experience young kids don’t give a schite about it, and if raised with nudity, they don’t give a schite later on either. But it does produce an interesting effect when your daughter asks…What is that daddy? I don’t have one. Most parents would go glassy eyed trying to explain as there is one thing most americans can’t do well and that is basic sex ed.
    Its all about repressed adults.

  • Adam Lee

    When it comes to the bigger picture, though, what really bothers me is that *every single time* there is a protest by Western women in support of equal rights for women in other countries, it gets called imperialist, as if there aren’t women from those other countries who support equal rights.

    Yes! Thanks for mentioning that, Ani. I’ve been noticing that pattern for a while, not just in the responses to Femen – this idea that any time someone from the West speaks on behalf of someone from a non-Western society, even if they’re following the lead of someone from that society, it automatically gets labeled as racist, imperialist, or condescending. This is a bad precedent.

    As much harm as the West has admittedly done to other societies, people from those societies are still perfectly capable of being racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced in their own ways, and no one should defend or excuse that. Those of us who are WEIRD people have good historical reasons for not wanting to interfere in other societies or stereotype people of other cultures. But you have to counterbalance that with a recognition that everyone deserves to have their basic rights protected. Our history provides a reason to be cautious; it shouldn’t provide a reason to do nothing at all in the face of obvious harm to real human beings.

  • Lydiam

    I greatly respect the women who have literally put skin in the game to denounce body shame. Now, where are the men who are standing nude in solidarity with them? ALL bodies should be made to stand equal for beauty, freedom, and pride. Brothers, join in with your sisters!

  • http://www.thegirlgod.com trista

    Thank you for writing this. As a progressive Muslim woman myself, I have wanted to write a similar article for weeks but haven’t had time. You touched on the important issue for me: choice. As a Muslim Feminist, I believe choice is critical for all women. What seems to be missing from previous articles is Amina’s choice in all this. I fully support Amina and find her to be a very brave young woman. While I previously had some difficulty understanding Femen and found some of the protest pictures offensive, it is their right to protest as they please. I also realize that the press plays a role is showing the most controversial pictures. Amina in particular has challenged many of my own beliefs and for that I will forever be grateful to her – and to Femen. I do believe they are making a difference. Well done.

  • http://gophergold.wordpress.com/ Dave Lerner

    “where they can dress however they choose without shame or persecution”

    Or sexual harassment, or fear of being raped, because “they’re asking for it” by dressing that way.


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